Q: Can you recommend an appropriate pillow for neck pain? A few months ago I lost my balance while on a ladder. I didn't fall, but I jerked my neck with a whiplash action. My orthopaedist told me I had arthritis and gave me a rubber neck brace to wear; however, I wake up every morning with a painful neck. Is it possible that the right type of pillow would alleviate my pain? 

A: The right pillow can make a difference in your sleeping position and thus can affect how your neck feels the next day, particularly if you are getting over a sprain or strain, which is what whiplash really is.

In selecting a pillow for neck pain, you will need to carefully choose one that fits you. First, look for a pillow that supports your neck but does not tilt your head forward when you are lying on your back. If you sleep on your side, the pillow you choose should support your head in line with your neck, not tilt your head up or down. The pillow should fill just the space between the mattress and your ear.

There are a variety of pillows for neck pain, but you might want to check out some pillows you already have. Feather pillows are particularly good for punching into the shape you want. Also, many people with neck pain find that using extra pillows to support their arms at night makes sleeping more comfortable.

Although your neck pain may have nothing to do with the signs of arthritis your doctor saw on your X-ray, it would be a good idea to ask him about exercises that are good for head and neck posture. Flexibility, strength and posture are important in preventing neck pain and decreasing the risk of injuries whether you have arthritis or not.

Marian Minor, PT, PhD, Physical Therapist